Marine Biology

, 164:181 | Cite as

Genetic fingerprinting reveals natal origins of male leatherback turtles encountered in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea

  • Suzanne E. RodenEmail author
  • Kelly R. Stewart
  • Michael C. James
  • Kara L. Dodge
  • Florence Dell’Amico
  • Peter H. Dutton
Original paper


Understanding population dynamics in broadly distributed marine species with cryptic life history stages is challenging. Information on the population dynamics of sea turtles tends to be biased toward females, due to their accessibility for study on nesting beaches. Males are encountered only at sea; there is little information about their migratory routes, residence areas, foraging zones, and population boundaries. In particular, male leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) are quite elusive; little is known about adult and juvenile male distribution or behavior. The at-sea distribution of male turtles from different breeding populations is not known. Here, 122 captured or stranded male leatherback turtles from the USA, Turkey, France, and Canada (collected 1997–2012) were assigned to one of nine Atlantic basin populations using genetic analysis with microsatellite DNA markers. We found that all turtles originated from western Atlantic nesting beaches (Trinidad 55%, French Guiana 31%, and Costa Rica 14%). Although genetic data for other Atlantic nesting populations were represented in the assignment analysis (St. Croix, Brazil, Florida, and Africa (west and south), none of the male leatherbacks included in this study were shown to originate from these populations. This was an unexpected result based on estimated source population sizes. One stranded turtle from Turkey was assigned to French Guiana, while others that were stranded in France were from Trinidad or French Guiana breeding populations. For 12 male leatherbacks in our dataset, natal origins determined from the genetic assignment tests were compared to published satellite and flipper tag information to provide evidence of natal homing for male leatherbacks, which corroborated our genetic findings. Our focused study on male leatherback natal origins provides information not previously known for this cryptic, but essential component of the breeding population. This method should provide a guideline for future studies, with the ultimate goal of improving management and conservation strategies for threatened and endangered species by taking the male component of the breeding population into account.



Samples were collected under ESA Section 10(a)(1)(A) permits issued by NMFS to the Southeast Fisheries Science Center (#1260, #1324, #1429 and #1552) and the University of New Hampshire (#1557 and #15672). These samples were imported from the high seas under the authority of the USFWS CITES Permit #US045532/9. Sample collection in Nova Scotia, Canada, was supported by funding from Canadian Wildlife Federation, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, George Cedric Metcalf Foundation, Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (USA), National Marine Fisheries Service (USA), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and World Wildlife Fund Canada. Funding for US samples was provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance. Funding support for this analysis and for Kelly R. Stewart was provided by a Lenfest Ocean Program Grant. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lenfest Ocean Program or The Pew Charitable Trusts. We thank the Aquarium La Rochelle SAS Network and the Centre d’Etudes et de Soins pour les Tortues Marines for coordinating collection of samples from the Atlantic French Network: Réseau Tortues Marines Atlantique Est. For help with sample collection at sea in Canada, we thank S. Craig, B. Fricker, H. Fricker, J. Fricker, W. George, B. Mitchell, and M. Nicholson. We also thank D. Archibald, L. Bennett, C. Harvey-Clark, and K. Martin for stranding response and sample preparation in Canada. We are grateful to M. Lutcavage, A. Myers, C. Merigo, C. Innis, T. Norton, M. Dodge, G. Purmont, M. Leach, B. Sharp, S. Landry, T. Sheehan, V. Saba, M. Murphy, G. Tomasian, N. Fragoso, K. Sampson, R. Smolowitz, K. Hirokawa, J. Casey, S. Leach, J. Wilson, and E. Eldredge for associated field assistance in the USA. We thank the following individuals and organizations: in the USA, Lisa Belskis, Wendy Teas, Kate Sardi Sampson, Donna Shaver, Bob Prescott, Anthony Amos, and Sara McNulty, New England Aquarium and Center for Coastal Studies, and in Turkey, Ertan Taskavak. For laboratory, technical, and logistical assistance at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, we thank Gabriela Serra-Valente, Amy Lanci, Amy Frey, Robin LeRoux, Amanda Bowman, and Victoria Pease. Thoughtful review and ideas that contributed to the original draft were provided by Michael Jensen and Amy Frey, while Erin LaCasella contributed maps made using Maptool at We sincerely thank the reviewers of this paper as well as the handling editor.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical standards

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

227_2017_3211_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (208 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 207 kb)


  1. Åkesson S, Weimerskirch H (2014) Evidence for sex-segregated ocean distributions of first-winter wandering albatrosses at Crozet islands. PLoS One 9:e86779. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086779 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bailey H, Benson SR, Shillinger GL et al (2012) Leatherback turtle movement patterns. Bull Ecol Soc Am 93:165–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baker JD, Antonelis GA, Fowler CW, York AE (1995) Natal site fidelity in northern fur seals, Callorhinus ursinus. Anim Behav 50(1):237–247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bannister N, Holland J, Farrelly T (2016) Nest site fidelity of flatback Turtles (‘Natator depressus’) on Bare Sand Island, Northern Territory, Australia. North Territ Nat 27:47–53Google Scholar
  5. Billes A, Fretey J, Verhage B et al (2006) First evidence of leatherback movement from Africa to South America. Mar Turt Newsl 111:13–14Google Scholar
  6. Block BA, Jonsen ID, Jorgensen SJ et al (2011) Tracking apex marine predator movements in a dynamic ocean. Nature 475:86–90. doi: 10.1038/nature10082 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bolker B, Okayama T, Bjorndal KA, Bolten AB (2007) Incorporating multiple mixed stocks in mixed stock analysis: “many-to-many” analyses. Mol Ecol 16:685–695. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2006.03161.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bowen BW, Karl SA (2007) Population genetics and phylogeography of sea turtles. Mol Ecol 16:4886–4907. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2007.03542.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bowen BW, Bass AL, Soares LS, Toonen RJ (2005) Conservation implications of complex population structure: lessons from the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). Mol Ecol 14:2389–2402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Casale P, Freggi D, Cinà A, Rocco M (2012) Spatio-temporal distribution and migration of adult male loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in the Mediterranean Sea: further evidence of the importance of neritic habitats off North Africa. Mar Biol 160:703–718. doi: 10.1007/s00227-012-2125-0 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chacón-Chaverri D, Eckert KL (2007) Leatherback sea turtle nesting at Gandoca Beach in Caribbean Costa Rica: management recommendations from fifteen years of conservation. Chelonian Conserv Biol 6:101–110. doi:10.2744/1071-8443(2007)6[101:LSTNAG]2.0.CO;2Google Scholar
  12. Davenport J (1997) Temperature and the life-history strategies of sea turtles. J Therm Biol 22:479–488. doi:10.1016/S0306-4565(97)00066-1Google Scholar
  13. Dizon AE, Balazs GH (1982) Radio telemetry of Hawaiin green turtles at their breeding colony. Mar Fish 44:13–20Google Scholar
  14. Dodge KL, Logan JM, Lutcavage ME (2011) Foraging ecology of leatherback sea turtles in the Western North Atlantic determined through multi-tissue stable isotope analyses. Mar Biol 158:2813–2824. doi: 10.1007/s00227-011-1780-x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dodge KL, Galuardi B, Miller TJ, Lutcavage ME (2014) Leatherback turtle movements, dive behavior, and habitat characteristics in ecoregions of the Northwest Atlantic ocean. PLoS One 9(3):e91726. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0091726 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Doyle TK, Houghton JD, O’Súilleabháin PF, Hobson VJ, Marnell F, Davenport J, Hays GC (2008) Leatherback turtles satellite-tagged in European waters. Endanger Species Res 4:23–31. doi: 10.3354/esr00076 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dutton PH (1995) Molecular evolution of sea turtles with special reference to the leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea. Dissertation, Texas A&M University, College StationGoogle Scholar
  18. Dutton PH, Frey A (2009) Characterization of polymorphic microsatellite markers for the green turtle (Chelonia mydas). Mol Ecol Resour 9:354–356. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-0998.2008.02443.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dutton PH, Roden SE, Stewart KR et al (2013) Population stock structure of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in the Atlantic revealed using mtDNA and microsatellite markers. Conserv Genet 14:625–636. doi: 10.1007/s10592-013-0456-0 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. FitzSimmons NN, Limpus CJ, Norman JA et al (1997) Philopatry of male marine turtles inferred from mitochondrial DNA markers. Proc Natl Acad Sci 94:8912–8917CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fossette S, Witt MJ, Miller P et al (2014) Pan-Atlantic analysis of the overlap of a highly migratory species, the leatherback turtle, with pelagic longline fisheries. Proc R Soc London B Biol Sci. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3065 Google Scholar
  22. Fuentes MMPB, Hamann M, Limpus CJ (2010) Past, current and future thermal profiles of green turtle nesting grounds: implications from climate change. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 383:56–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Geldiay R, Koray T, Balik S (1995) Status of sea turtle populations (Caretta caretta and Chelonia mydas) in the Northern Mediterranean Sea, Turkey. In: Bjorndal KA (ed) Biology and conservation of sea turtles, Revised edn. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., pp 425–434Google Scholar
  24. Groombridge B (1990) Marine turtles in the Mediterranean: distribution, population status, conservation. A report to the Council of Europe, Environment Conservation and Management DivisionGoogle Scholar
  25. Hamann M, Godfrey M, Seminoff J et al (2010) Global research priorities for sea turtles: informing management and conservation in the 21st century. Endanger Species Res 11:245–269. doi: 10.3354/esr00279 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hart KM, Mooreside P, Crowder LB (2006) Interpreting the spatio-temporal patterns of sea turtle strandings: going with the flow. Biol Conserv 129:283–290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hays GC, Ferreira LC, Sequeira AMM et al (2016) Key questions in marine megafauna movement ecology. Trends Ecol Evol. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2016.02.015 Google Scholar
  28. Hoffman JI, Forcada J (2012) Extreme natal philopatry in female Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella). Mamm Biol Zeitschrift für Säugetierkd 77:71–73. doi: 10.1016/j.mambio.2011.09.002 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Innis C, Merigo C, Dodge KL et al (2010) Health evaluation of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in the Northwestern Atlantic during direct capture and fisheries gear disentanglement. Chelonian Conserv Biol 9:205–222. doi: 10.2744/CCB-0838.1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Innis CJ, Merigo C, Cavin JM, Hunt K, Dodge KL, Lutcavage M (2014) Serial assessment of the physiological status of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) during direct capture events in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean: comparison of post-capture and pre-release data. Conserv Physiol. doi: 10.1093/conphys/cou048 Google Scholar
  31. James MC, Eckert SA, Myers RA (2005) Migratory and reproductive movements of male leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). Mar Biol 147:845–853. doi: 10.1007/s00227-005-1581-1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. James M, Sherrill-Mix S, Myers R (2007) Population characteristics and seasonal migrations of leatherback sea turtles at high latitudes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 337:245–254. doi: 10.3354/meps337245 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Jensen MP, FitzSimmons NN, Dutton PH, Michael P (2013) Molecular genetics of sea turtles. In: Wyneken J, Lohmann KJ, Musick JA (eds) Biology of sea turtles, vol 3. CRC Press. Boca Raton, FL, pp 135–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kalinowski ST, Manlove KR, Taper ML (2007) ONCOR: a computer program for genetic stock identification. Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana. Accessed 26 Sept 2014
  35. Komoroske LM, Jensen MP, Stewart KR, Shamblin BM, Dutton PH (2017) Advances in the application of genetics in marine turtle biology and conservation. Front Mar Sci 4:156. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2017.00156 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Laloë J-O, Cozens J, Renom B et al (2014) Effects of rising temperature on the viability of an important sea turtle rookery. Nat Clim Chang 4:513–518. doi: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2236 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Levy Y, King R, Aizenberg I (2005) Holding a live leatherback turtle in Israel: lessons learned. Mar Turt Newsl 107:7–8Google Scholar
  38. Limpus CJ (1993) The green turtle, Chelonia mydas, in Queensland: breeding males in the southern Great Barrier Reef. Wildl Res 20:513. doi: 10.1071/WR9930513 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. López-Mendilaharsu M, Rocha CFD, Miller P, Domingo A, Prosdocimi L (2009) Insights on leatherback turtle movements and high use areas in the Southwest Atlantic Ocean. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 378:31–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Manel S, Gaggiotti OE, Waples RS (2005) Assignment methods: matching biological questions with appropriate techniques. Trends Ecol Evol 20:136–142. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2004.12.004 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Maniatis T, Fritsch E, Sambrook J (1982) Molecular cloning laboratory manual. Cold Spring Harbor Press, Cold SpringGoogle Scholar
  42. Mrosovsky N, Dutton PH, Whitmore CP (1984) Sex ratios of two species of sea turtle nesting in Suriname. Can J Zool 62:2227–2239. doi: 10.1139/z84-324 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Murphy TM, Murphy SR, Griffin DB, Hope CP (2006) Recent occurrence, spatial distribution, and temporal variability of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in nearshore waters of South Carolina, USA. Chelonian Conserv Biol 5:216–224. doi:10.2744/1071-8443(2006)5[216:ROSDAT]2.0.CO;2Google Scholar
  44. Ordoñez C, Troëng S, Meylan A, Meylan P, Ruiz A (2007) Chiriqui Beach, Panama, the most important leatherback nesting beach in Central America. Chelonian Conserv Biol 6:122–126. doi:10.2744/1071-8443(2007)6[122:CBPTMI]2.0.CO;2Google Scholar
  45. Prosdocimi L, Dutton PH, Albareda D, Remis MI (2014) Origin and genetic diversity of leatherbacks (Dermochelys coriacea) at Argentine foraging grounds. J Exp Mar Bio Ecol 458:13–19. doi: 10.1016/j.jembe.2014.04.025 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Rees AF, Saad A, Jony M (2004) First record of a leatherback turtle in Syria. Mar Turt Newsl 106:13Google Scholar
  47. Roden SE, Dutton PH (2011) Isolation and characterization of 14 polymorphic microsatellite loci in the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) and cross-species amplification. Conserv Genet Resour 3:49–52. doi: 10.1007/s12686-010-9284-4 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Roden SE, Morin PA, Frey A, Balazs GH, Zarate P, Cheng IJ, Dutton PH (2013) Green turtle population structure in the Pacific: new insights from single nucleotide polymorphisms and microsatellites. Endanger Species Res 20:227–234. doi: 10.3354/esr00500 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Schofield G, Hobson VJ, Fossette S, Lilley MKS, Katselidis KA, Hays GC (2010) Biodiversity research: fidelity to foraging sites, consistency of migration routes and habitat modulation of home range by sea turtles. Divers Distrib 16:840–853. doi: 10.1111/j.1472-4642.2010.00694.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Shamblin BM, Bolten AB, Abreu-Grobois FA, Bjorndal KA, Cardona L et al (2014) Geographic patterns of genetic variation in a broadly distributed marine vertebrate: new insights into loggerhead turtle stock structure from expanded mitochondrial DNA sequences. PLoS One 9(1):e85956. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085956 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sönmez B, Sammy D, Yalçın-Özdilek Ş, Gönenler Ö, Açıkbaş U, Ergün Y, Kaska Y (2008) A stranded leatherback sea turtle in the northeastern Mediterranean, Hatay, Turkey. Mar Turt Newsl 119:12–13Google Scholar
  52. Stewart KR, Dutton PH (2014) Breeding sex ratios in adult leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) may compensate for female-biased hatchling sex ratios. PLoS One 9:e88138. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088138 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Stewart KR, Johnson C, Godfrey MH (2007) The minimum size of leatherbacks at reproductive maturity, with a review of sizes for nesting females from the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Ocean basins. Herpetol J 17:123–128Google Scholar
  54. Stewart KR, James MC, Roden SE, Dutton PH (2013) Assignment tests, telemetry and tag-recapture data converge to identify natal origins of leatherback turtles foraging in Atlantic Canadian waters. J Anim Ecol. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12056 Google Scholar
  55. Stewart KR, LaCasella EL, Roden SE et al (2016) Nesting population origins of leatherback turtles caught as bycatch in the US pelagic longline fishery. Ecosphere 7:01272CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Taskavak E, Boulon RH Jr, Atatur MK (1998) An unusual stranding of a leatherback turtle in Turkey. Mar Turt Newsl 80:13Google Scholar
  57. Tucker AD, MacDonald BD, Seminoff JA (2014) Foraging site fidelity and stable isotope values of loggerhead turtles tracked in the Gulf of Mexico and northwest Caribbean. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 502:267–279. doi: 10.3354/meps10655 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Velez-Zuazo X, Ramos WD, Van Dam RP, Diez CE, Abreu-Grobois A, Mcmillan WO (2008) Dispersal, recruitment and migratory behaviour in a hawksbill sea turtle aggregation. Mol Ecol 17:839–853. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2007.03635.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wallace BP, DiMatteo AD, Hurley BJ et al (2010) Regional management units for marine turtles: a novel framework for prioritizing conservation and research across multiple scales. PLoS One 5:e15465. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015465 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Witt MJ, Augowet Bonguno E, Broderick AC et al (2011) Tracking leatherback turtles from the world’s largest rookery: assessing threats across the South Atlantic. Proc Biol Sci 278:2338–2347. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2467 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany (outside the USA) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Suzanne E. Roden
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kelly R. Stewart
    • 2
  • Michael C. James
    • 3
  • Kara L. Dodge
    • 4
  • Florence Dell’Amico
    • 5
  • Peter H. Dutton
    • 1
  1. 1.Marine Mammal and Turtle Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries ServiceNational Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.The Ocean Foundation, The Sunderland BuildingWashington, DCUSA
  3. 3.Population Ecology Division, Fisheries and Oceans CanadaBedford Institute of OceanographyDartmouthCanada
  4. 4.Biology DepartmentWoods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionWoods HoleUSA
  5. 5.Aquarium La RochelleCentre d’Etudes et de Soins pour les Tortues MarinesLa RochelleFrance

Personalised recommendations